WASHINGTON — Maybe James Neal doesn’t hit the post. Maybe Alex Tuch lifts the puck. Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury continues to stop nearly 95 percent of the shots he faced.
Maybe the Golden Knights’ bubble has finally popped.
So much has gone right for Vegas this season. That’s not to take anything away from the very good players that have performed very well on what’s been a remarkable, improbable run for an expansion franchise.
But on Monday night in Game 4, in which the Capitals scored six times, the Golden Knights hit four posts. In a game that Vegas outshot Washington (30-23) and produced more scoring chances (23-14) , Washington came away with a 6-2 victory, taking a 3-1 series lead and drawing within a single victory from lifting a Stanley Cup.
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This is Vegas we’re talking about, after all, and you can only win at the table so many times until you finally start losing. For the Golden Knights, that first setback may have come at the end of Game 2. And in the two games since, Vegas continues to have been dealt a pretty bad hand.
“Just maybe some puck luck or just not bearing down,” Tuch said. “It happens. It’s hockey.”
It’s hockey, and oh, is it cruel.
There are moments that write the story of a series. When Neal had an open net to shoot on 4:30 into the first period and struck the post, it certainly felt like one of those moments. Minutes earlier, Reilly Smith flubbed a one-timer with a good portion of the goal to shoot on.
“Yeah, I hit the post. It probably changes the game (if it’s a goal),” Neal said. “I was just kind of … man, you want those chances. Nine times out of 10 you probably put that in the back of the net. It’s like I had the composure to wait, and then you shoot it, and you’re like oh.
“The way it hit the post and still came out, I mean it’s … I don’t know, it’s tough.”
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Because after Neal hit the post, T.J. Oshie scored in short order on the power play, then Tom Wilson scored, and then Devante Smith-Pelley scored. By the end of the first period, the Golden Knights were in a 3-0 hole.
“I thought we had a decent push after,” Neal said, “but like I said, you score that one and it’s a different game. Yeah, it’s tough.”
All season, while Vegas has defied the odds, it has seemingly seen the bounces go its way. A Connor Hellebuyck clear up the glass in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals that hit a stanchion, creating a turnover that led to an Alex Tuch goal. A missed shot by Smith in Game 1 that, despite hitting the outside of the net, still caromed off the end boards and out to the opposite side on the waiting stick of William Karlsson who stuffed it in.
“I heard that last series against us, people were saying that,” Gallant said. “You don’t make excuses. Tonight’s game was a step forward. When you work hard those pucks will go in for you. Tonight was a big step. We have no more room for error.”
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But therein lies the problem for Vegas, the mountain it currently faces despite perhaps playing its best game of this Cup Final series versus the reality it now faces: One more loss, and the magic is up.
“I thought that was our best game,” Neal said. “Yeah, it’s frustrating.”
There’s no denying the Golden Knights have been good this season, vastly better than what was expected of them, but it’s most advantageous when you’re both lucky and good. There’s no team that knows this better, perhaps, than the Capitals, one of the winningest franchises in the NHL the past decade that has yet to get over the hump.
Maybe the Capitals are finally getting those bounces now, and maybe the Golden Knights finally are not. It’s a cruel twist of fate, one of the stark realities of sport that sometimes can rear its head at the most inopportune of times.
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“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Tomas Tatar said.
“It was frustrating because of the score,” Gallant added.
Hockey can be frustrating, and the Golden Knights are certainly learning that.
There were some warning signs, if you knew how to count the cards, that the deck was beginning to cool off for Vegas. By postseason round, Fleury’s save percentage was at .977 in the first, .935 in the second, and .938 in the Western Conference finals. In these four games against Washington, Fleury has stopped 87 of 103 shots, or an .845 save-percentage.
What a concept: the Capitals on the heels of winning their first Stanley Cup by beating Fleury again and again.
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“We were playing fine, right?” Fleury said. “We weren’t playing bad. We didn’t get those goals and they got a few. So it was frustrating.”
Perhaps there’s a theme building here.
For the past 242 days, since the Golden Knights played their first official NHL game on Oct. 6 against the Stars, Vegas has been the frustrater. The cast of “Golden Misfits” puffed their chests out in the face of convention, reaching heights no one expected.
But something feels very different now, and it has nothing to do with the level the Golden Knights are playing at. Many players in the locker room felt Game 4 was their best performance of the series. Many felt they rebounded after a lackluster Game 3 and got back to what has made them successful. Many said they generated enough chances to grab a lead in Game 4, instead of quickly finding themselves in a 3-0 hole.
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“We obviously got some breaks at the start of the game,” said Braden Holtby, the obvious beneficiary of one of those bounces. “To be honest, I thought it was in (from) my angle, and somehow it didn’t go in.”
Because honestly, how did that puck not go in?
“It’s not like anyone made a save,” Neal said. “I shot it off the post on the far side. It’s done with. It’s not the first time that’s happened, probably won’t be the last. But on this stage at that moment it changes the game.”
Fleury changed the game in the West finals against the Jets, when his diving save on Mark Scheifele in Game 3 preserved a lead, and a 2-1 Golden Knights series lead. Holtby changed a game just five days ago when he robbed Tuch, sealing a Capitals’ victory in Game 2 of the Cup Final.
There was tremendous skill involved in those moments, but also a bit of luck. If either player lifts the puck, an amazing stop becomes virtually impossible. In a sense, it perfectly encapsulates Vegas’ season. In no way has its success been entirely predicated on luck, but to sweep under the rug some of what has been vital in Vegas getting this far is to ignore a pretty important piece of the story.
Maybe William Karlsson is a much better player than the Blue Jackets let one, but maybe he doesn’t ever shoot above 23 percent and score 40 goals in a season ever again. Maybe Fleury still has something left in the tank, but can’t be the Dominik Hasek-esque goaltender we saw during the first three rounds.
Maybe Neal buries the shot. Maybe the series goes back to Vegas tied 2-2.
“We were doing the right things, like I said, just a couple of bounces, and the one that I had there, you score, and then you get momentum, it changes where you’re going,” Neal said. “Obviously the score, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There were a lot of parts to our game that were good tonight.”
Good? Yes. But not lucky. Now the Golden Knights are heading home frustrated to play the first elimination game in their history.
“No feeling sorry four ourselves,” Neal said. “We have to regroup, and like I said if we play that way again we’ll be just fine.”
Perhaps they’ll even get lucky.
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